Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Embracing the key influencers for change

Successful change depends on involving the key influencers in an organisation, yet research suggests leaders can only identify 30 percent of these people, leaving a whopping 70 percent invisible. That’s either a big opportunity or a big problem, says Bernie White.

We live in interesting times, as the old Chinese saying goes. It’s hard not to notice increasing complexity and a general sense that many things may need to change in order to be sustainable, whether you are talking house prices, climate change, social equity, jobs or health. The question is how socially traumatic will change be and what can we do to mitigate the impact, or even make the most of the opportunities that will emerge.

Below the level of society, organisations have been persistently poor at responding to change. The usual response is to wait too long and embark on expensive restructuring that can, too often, diminish rather than grow capability and relevance. Organisational change efforts at best maintain the status quo or, at worst, only contribute to their own adaptive decline.


There is another way to embrace change. It recognises that organisations aren’t just an organisational chart, a set of physical assets, systems, processes, knowledge and methods. Organisations are also complex networks of relationships where informal influence plays a significant role in the thinking and behaviours of the whole organisation. In other words, they are social systems.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s iconic Tipping Point, he investigated the role of the key individuals involved in large-scale social change. Gladwell found that success in any kind of social change is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of skills. These people he describes as connectors (social hubs), mavens (information specialists) and salesmen (charismatic persuaders).

Finding these people can be difficult without being able to look across the population and understand the network effect they exert through their relationships. This relatively small population are the real key influencers shaping the thinking and behaviour of the whole group.

We’ve all heard the old saying “it’s not what you know, its who you know”. The problem is that it’s not always easy to know who matters. And it is very difficult to see the whole network of relationships to find out. In fact, international experience suggests that leaders can only identify 30 percent of the key influencers within their organisations.

That leaves a whopping 70 percent of influencers invisible to leaders. That’s either a big opportunity or a big problem—one that may explain some of the persistent failure of change initiatives. Key influencers may not be buying into change because leaders aren’t giving them enough attention or, even worse, don’t even know that they exist!


At Better Change we see network analysis as a key tool for dealing with change as a more social and cultural practice. Network analysis provides a legitimate way of identifying those individuals who exert disproportionate influence over the whole organisation—and they provide a doorway into deeper understanding of what’s really going on below the surface.

Tools like Maven7’s OrgMapper capture social data by using an on-line survey that asks everyone around 20 questions. Questions like:

  • • 
    Which of your colleagues are most likely to speak for the needs and opinions of others?
  • • 
    Who do you turn to for advice before making an important work-related decision?
  • • 
    Which of your colleagues are admired and used as examples to be imitated?
  • • 
    Which of your colleagues do you find trustworthy and dependable?

OrgMapper then applies sophisticated analysis to present the relevant features of that network. For example, identifying the relative quality of network cohesion (trust) and the quality of formal and informal communication. Further, the analysis identifies the group of key influencers who are highly connected (Social hubs), highly respected for their capability (Role models) and those who are highly connected and highly respected (Champions).

Identifying the key influencers is one valuable use of network analysis. Once identified, the key influencer group can then be brought together through a series of focus groups to draw out a deeper collective understanding of the real situation, including change mindsets, assumptions, risks, beliefs, and hidden opportunities to accelerate change and create new value. We find that involving key influencers early in the change cycle significantly increases the chance of them buying into the change programme. And genuinely acting as positive agents of real change.

However, we have found that we need to be careful. Successfully using network analysis requires clarity of objective. Network analysis projects need to be focused on a specific opportunity or risk that needs to be resolved. There needs to be an obvious reason and benefit for taking this approach that makes sense to the people in the organisation. This can be communicated prior to the survey and will increase the likelihood that participation rates are sufficient to provide legitimate results.

The analysis also depends on quality people data and this can take time to gather and clean. It’s also important to allow enough time for the project. An overall timeframe of 8-12 weeks is likely.

Design is critical. Agreement is needed on purpose, scale and scope, constraints, survey questions, communications and roles and responsibilities. The project needs to be launched well and people need to be assured about the ethical use of their personal data.


Firstly, the network analysis reveals the hidden structure of the network of influencers. Normally clients choose to identify the 5-20 percent of the people who are the most trusted and influential. These are the people who drive the culture and performance of the whole group. And it’s likely that the leadership team are aware of less than 50 percent of these individuals in smaller populations, and probably less than 30 percent in large populations.

Even more surprisingly, analysis often identifies certain individuals who are a real surprise. I’ve had several leaders ask me: “Why the hell is that person a key influencer?” This is often because that person has a position that doesn’t align with what the leaders are trying to do. Well, they have been legitimately identified by their peers and it’s better to know this than ignore them and hope for the best.

The network analysis also provides assessment and bench-marking of the effectiveness of both formal and informal communication across the organisation to reveal areas of strength, priority development area, and quick wins that can improve communication in the short term.

Secondly, the key influencers can be engaged and developed as a responsible “conscience” or reference group for the whole organisation. This needs to be done carefully by engaging them in a true open dialogue that reveals a deeper and more holistic understanding of what is going on across the organisation. Given the risks of successfully implementing change and the significant levels of investment that are often required, we see the importance of developing more acute situational awareness via the collective perspective of the key influencers. It’s important to get a better handle on the hidden beliefs, assumptions and perceived “truths” that will be driving people’s reactions to change.


Develop and actively involve a respected group in change. Our experience has been that identified key influencers generally feel a responsibility for improving the wider system. They are motivated to develop themselves and others. Because they are disproportionately influential and connected, lifting their change capability can leverage the senior leadership’s strategic change intentions through their genuine and trusted relationships.

Also, making this group visible allows senior leadership to recognise the respect with which they are held.

Improve and align communication. Most formal organisational communication suffers from time delays and can be distorted by personal and political agendas. Hearing from the key influencer group helps flush out hidden issues and get beneath the surface to make leadership communication more relevant and authentic.

By connecting the group of key influencers with itself and with senior leadership, both formal and informal communication can be more responsive to immediate and emerging conditions for the organisation. And, by plugging into an information source that comes straight from a trusted and influential group, the leaders can improve understanding of their communication objectives and align formal and informal (over the water cooler) communication.

Accelerate real change. Connecting with the key influencer group enables faster understanding and adoption of new thinking and practices by the wider population. Meaning is generated out of the genuine relationships that shape how individuals see and react to change. Concerns and resistance can be shared and resolved at source in real time rather than waiting for them to percolate up to senior leadership.

Support more impactful leadership. The effectiveness of the leaders’ decisions and actions is dependent on the quality of their situational awareness. By enhancing access to trusted insights from all levels of the organisation, leaders are better informed about what really matters and can therefore respond more intelligently. And they can design, target and time changes more skillfully, and decide what they can safely ignore or let go.

Minimise the risks involved in change. The real risks for change success are rarely the one’s you can see. Risks involving structure, roles and responsibilities, processes, systems, technology and workforce capabilities are relatively easier to manage. There are proven methods for these.

The bigger risks are often the ones that are harder to see—risks involving the human condition and how we react to change, the network of existing relationships, tacit knowledge, organisational culture and the mood of the workforce. Connecting with the key influencer group makes it possible for these harder-to-see risks to be visible and therefore easier to manage.

Target change investment decisions. Network analysis reveals that not everyone or everything is equal in terms of impact. And looking at a system from a network perspective can reveal some surprising insights. This means that investments can be better targeted to areas and individuals where there is a bigger return on investment. For instance, greater development investment in the key influencer group may be a better investment than development based on leadership position.


There is an unprecedented amount of change happening within organisations. It seems unlikely to stop or slow down any time soon. New approaches to change are emerging and more are needed. Network analysis is a new and useful approach to dealing with change in a more social way.

Our work in this area has been incredibly fascinating. We are still at the early stages of supporting the development of a key influencer groups in organisations. There is a lot of learning still to do.

If this emerging topic is of interest for you and/or you are generally interested in new approaches to change, please contact me with the intention of being part of a Better Change New Zealand special interest group. I’m at

BERNIE WHITE is a partner at Better Change.

comments powered by Disqus

From Employment Today Magazine

Table of Contents